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Why Obsessing Over Theme Will Make You Ruin Your Story

“I’ve got something to say”

Your script or novel’s theme IS important, but you don’t want to ruin your story by obsessing over it. This is because theme refers to the meaning behind the story, not the story itself. This means you need to concentrate on craft first, THEN theme.

Look, writer’s voice is important. We’ve all seen various pro writers, prodcos, agents and publishers going on about this. It would seem like putting theme under the spotlight then is a similar no-brainer.

Except everybody’s forgotten these important things:

  • Theme is all about individuals making meaning from a story
  • This means there is no ‘right answer’ when it comes to theme
  • Individuals will make their own meaning when reading/watching our stories, no matter what

These simple three realisations will set you free. Here’s why … Ready? Let’s go!

i) Making meaning from your story

Remember, theme relates to what’s behind your story – that’s the key word. People will get that meaning behind your story if – and ONLY if – the craft of your writing is strong.

But what do I mean by craft? Well, you need your story to have a concept, characters and plot (aka structure) for people to understand the story, then see what is behind it.

But if you spend all your time obsessing over your theme and NOT your craft, guess what happens???

Oh that’s right, your concept, characters and structure don’t work. This means no one has any clue what is going on!

MORE: Why Your Draft Does Not Make Sense (Plus What To Do About It) 

ii) There is no ‘right answer’ on theme

I’m a fan of the Anais Nin quote, ‘We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.’

This is why two different people can watch the same movie or TV show, or read the same book and have wildly different interpretations of the meaning behind it.

This is not rocket science. Yet I see writers obsessing over theme to such a degree they may get so-called ‘contradictory’ notes from peer reviewers or beta readers and freak out.

Yet unless those notes are about specific craft issues (such as the aforementioned concept, characters or plot/structure), it doesn’t matter if those individuals saw the theme behind them differently.

That’s right — it doesn’t matter.

iii) Individuals will always see what they want to see

People will ALWAYS see your story differently, even if you’re the one who wrote it. How you OR other people see your theme can only ever be a rough approximation.

I’ve lost count of the number of times people have told me what they ‘saw’ theme-wise in my stories. Some, I can see why they may have arrived at that conclusion. Other times, I could never have seen it in a million years. It’s all part of life’s rich tapestry.

NEWSFLASH: You Have To Get SPECIFIC In Your Story Anyway!

Most writers say theme is important to them and that they have something they want to say. This is fine, but frequently writers are just not specific enough. When something can be ANYTHING, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the possibilities. This means writers need to get specific about whatever message they want to disseminate.

Let’s say you’re writing a romantic comedy novel or screenplay

At the beginning, your protagonist says she doesn’t want love because society conditions women to want marriage and children and she thinks that’s bullshit. Then, over the course of the narrative, the protagonist changes her mind because [REASONS].

What could those reasons be? Well …

  • She meets another character she wants to be with forever after all
  • She discovers that actually, some strong women are both wives and mothers (we’re not all saps! Thangyewverymuch)
  • Lastly, she realises that her previous thoughts on love and marriage were just as reductive as society’s

In other words, all those [REASONS] add up in the story, creating an arc for our protagonist. The writer has worked out what they want to say, which boils down to …

Yes, expecting women to HAVE to ‘settle down or else‘ is bullshit BUT if women **want and choose to** settle down, that doesn’t make their lives bullshit. 

When a writer doesn’t know upfront what they want to say specifically, their stories can end up muddled and confused.

So: You Have To Invest In Craft, NOT Theme

Notice how I etched out the female character’s arc over the course of the narrative. By concentrating on where she started versus where she ended up FIRST, I was able to weave in my feminist theme about ‘society versus personal choice’ afterwards.

This way makes sense because you can ensure you tell a dramatically compelling story. That’s the key for any storytelling … The only real rule is ‘don’t be boring’, after all.

However, by obsessing over theme THEN story, it invariably goes wrong in my experience. I can’t tell you how many writers have come to me, tied up in story knots all because they’ve placed theme BEFORE craft.

So next time you’re obsessing over your story, consider your concept, characters and plotting FIRST.

By all means have something you want to say in mind, but weave it in later … and accept not everyone will see your story the way you do.

Good Luck!

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1 thought on “Why Obsessing Over Theme Will Make You Ruin Your Story”

  1. I never worry about theme. As someone (Kurt Vonnegut, I believe) once said, “Theme is what your English teacher finds in a story that the author never intended.”
    And I know that if you show your screenplay to a hundred people, you’ll find your story had a hundred and three different themes.
    So I don’t worry about it. I just write my story, and if someone sees an important theme, more power to them.

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